How Trump has made food stamps a Republican cause

Trump plans to slash SNAP, again.
Trump plans to slash SNAP, again.
Image: AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
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President Donald Trump is no stranger to practices that punish the poor.

It was a mainstay of his professional strategy as a real estate developer known for skipping out on payments. It has shown to be a major theme in his political career, where he has sought to strip health care and other assistance programs from low-income Americans. Trump’s crusade against the poor seems undeterred by nuisances like research, law, or core values.

So, when he decided to take aim at food stamps by announcing cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

Earlier this summer, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced it would terminate broad based categorical eligibility (BBCE) for SNAP recipients, a move that would cut nutritional assistance for an estimated 3.1 million of the 36 million Americans currently enrolled in the program.

This is not the first time Trump has set his sights on slashing SNAP. His proposed 2018 budget cut almost 25% of the program’s funding over the course of a decade. The measure failed. So, when the Farm Bill came up for reauthorization, as it does every five years, Trump moved to terminate BBCEs and tighten work requirements within the sweeping legislation that encompasses US policy on agriculture, food safety, trade, subsidies, and nutrition programs.

The measures once again failed in Congress and the Farm Bill passed without them. And the president decided once again to circumvent legislators and let the USDA announce his plan without Congressional approval.

Democratic legislators are predictably outraged by the president’s myopic decision, with senate minority leader Chuck Schumer vowing to fight the measure and house speaker Nancy Pelosi referring to it as an “act of staggering callousness.”

Progressive groups and commentators have spoken out against the measure and called for the public to submit comments on an official website here until Sept. 23, after which the administration is legally required to read all statements on record before enacting any policy change.

Yes, social benefits for the poor are usually championed by the Left. But ending BBCE for SNAP is devastating not only to the poor, and abhorrent not only to Democrats. It is bad policy by traditional conservative values as well.

Trump’s plan hurts the Republican cause, specifically—and not only in how it impacts people who actually need the benefits.

It limits states’ rights

Protecting state rights are traditionally a core value for Republicans. BBCE reflects this, as it allows states to provide some leeway in enrollment requirements for SNAP based on a recipient’s participation in other assistance programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). These recipients are often automatically enrolled in SNAP and benefit from the states’ less restrictive thresholds compared to what is guaranteed federally.

Whereas on the federal level SNAP is designated for those whose income is equal to or less than 130% of the poverty rate and hold assets up to $2,250, the current system allows participating states to provide food stamps to those whose income reaches up to 200% of the poverty line, with varying restrictions on assets.

This system provides school meals to some 265,000 children whose parents may be going through temporary financial hardship—perhaps some of the laid-off factory workers Trump claims to speak for. It allows low-income working families to secure a modest savings while still putting food on the table. It prevents an elderly individual from depleting his or her savings before applying for nutrition assistance.

BBCE also relieves state governments from the extraneous administrative work and expense that will be required as a result of having to process the applications from the 3.1 million people that will flood into the system again.

Conservatives have long fought to protect states’ rights. It is hard to understand how the federal government’s interference with how states manage their nutritional assistance programs is in any way acceptable—especially given that 43 states utilize some form of BBCE.

The measure not only limits states’ determination over the implementation of SNAP, it imposes unnecessary bureaucracy on those states, and administrative costs will rise as a result of reinstating benefits to those affected.

Aside from the absurdity of rerouting money away from direct relief and into administrative purposes, it seems to defy another core tenant of pre-Trump conservative thinking: to limit the size and scope of government rather than be buried in bureaucracy.

Isn’t an overreaching government what keeps wait times so long in those socialist European emergency rooms Republicans despise so deeply?

It disincentives work

Then there are the issues of the effects such changes will have on the finances of the 3.1 million BBCE SNAP recipients, and how that will impact the general health of the American economy. The current system incentivizes work and accumulation of assets since benefits are phased down as income and assets increase. This helps prevent what is known as “benefit cliff,” when individuals lose all benefits based on even small gains in income and assets. In other words, it limits situations in which earning more money, and contributing more to the economy, would be against someone’s interest. This is good for the economy.

As a letter from the US Conference of Mayors points out, the USDA’s data states that “during times of economic downturn, every additional $5 in SNAP benefits generates up to $9 of economic activity.” A benefit cliff, on the other hand, perpetuates a cycle of poverty and dependence on programs such as SNAP in the long term.

Even modest increase in wages or savings could cut a family’s eligibility for SNAP entirely, thus reinforcing the “welfare state” by trapping people in a cycle of poverty.

What happened to the Republican Party that claims to prefer giving “a hand up, not a hand out?”

So, where is the outrage on the Republican side?

Except for the handful of Republicans that joined a group of 70 mayors speaking out on the measure, conservative leadership has remained quiet about any misgivings surrounding the proposal. Trump’s Congressional sycophants stand by as he undermines an entire branch of government, though this has largely been the dynamic between the Oval Office and Capitol Hill Republicans since he took office.

Some Republicans are speaking in favor of Trump’s plan, referring to BBCE as a “loophole in the system.” A favorite talking point—and perhaps even the inspiration for the decision—is the Minnesota Republican millionaire who defrauded the system, to prove it could be done. Other supporters point to the USDA’s estimate of $2.5 billion in savings should the changes go into effect.

The Minnesota millionaire is an instigator and an outlier, and $2.5 billion puts food on the table for people who need it.

It would be easy enough for Republicans to wash their hands of the matter and argue the President is acting alone on this. Clearly the lost-cause Republicans in Congress won’t do much to prevent Trump’s tirade against the poor. And maybe the Republicans of the general public won’t be flooding the comment boards with moralistic and economic arguments against this proposal.

But November 2020 is just around the corner. Republican voters need to start asking themselves how much more damage to our country’s morality and economy—and to their own party’s credibility—they are willing to withstand.